I was watching BABYMETAL’s “Doki Doki Morning” music video last night and my train of thought wandered from, this song is dope, to, these kids look way too young, to, hmm, wasn’t GP Basic just a few years older?
Inevitably I wondered: why do I even know these artists to begin with?
I knew GP Basic long before I knew BABYMETAL. GP Basic was a Korean girl group who debuted back in 2010, and their members were aged 12 to 15 at that time. They were the talk of the town for a bit, but they eventually disbanded and only the maknae Janey continued to pursue idol-dom when she got older.
BABYMETAL, on the other hand, is a Japanese band who plays “kawaii metal.” The core members are girls who sing in high-pitched voices, and they were only 11 to 13 years old when the band debuted. They became viral sometime in the mid-2010’s, and that’s how I quote-unquote discovered them.
I no longer recall the specific songs that pulled me into this pop music blackhole, but I’m certain I was into J-Pop first before I got into K-Pop.
My interest in J-Pop sort of sprouted from my teenage obsession with Japanese dramas. I lived in a dorm back then and my life was upended when, one day, somebody brought to our room a pirated DVD copy of the TV series Hana Kimi. The show’s premise was absurd — a girl pretended to be a boy so she could go to the same all-boys school that her crush attended — but the jokes were funny and Ikuta Toma was gorgeous. My friends and I got hooked.
Week after week, some student would bring another DVD of a new dorama for us to watch. Unlike Korean dramas, Japanese TV series had only 10 to 12 episodes, and each episode was just half-an-hour long. They were easy to binge, especially for high school students who had schoolwork to do and other teen problems to deal with.
The J-doramas that I watched mostly starred idols from the company Johnny’s Entertainment. Gokusen was one of them, and its first season starred Arashi’s Matsumoto Jun. One Liter of Tears starred NEWS’ Nishikido Ryo, while Nobuta Wo Produce starred KAT-TUN’s Kamenashi Kazuya and NEWS’ Yamapi. The main actors in these dramas were also singers, so I guess this was how I branched out from J-dorama to J-music.
Even then, I could tell that none of these Japanese idols-slash-actors were particularly good at singing or dancing. Part of their charm was their being quote-unquote average. They were not drop dead attractive, their teeth needed some fixing, and their bodies were stick skinny. They were definitely not larger-than-life celebrities, and they were not as polished as their Korean counterparts.
Meanwhile, K-pop performers were hella skilled onstage. One of my fellow dorama-loving friends showed us videos of K-pop stars Rain and BoA, and both artists could dance to technically complex choreographies. The same friend also showed us live performances of other groups like Super Junior, but the one band that stood out to me was DBSK.
DBSK was a hugely popular boy group from SM Entertainment. So, typically, a Korean boy band consists of a leader, a main vocalist, a main rapper, a main dancer, and a visual (a.k.a. most attractive). SM formed DBSK by gathering their best male trainees who qualified for all those positions. DBSK was a special project group, which explained the fact that all its members could sing well. They did vocal harmonies and shit, which was, and still is, rare among K-Pop idol groups.
While DBSK was doing promotions in Japan, a new boy band was launched by another company YG Entertainment. The group Big Bang was the antithesis to DBSK. If DBSK was marketed as youth role models, Big Bang was portrayed as rowdy boys who loved to party. Big Bang also didn’t do basic dance bops; they mostly did hip-hop and RnB, at least during the early stages of their career.
Big Bang’s debut CD had four songs, which included “We Belong Together” featuring Park Bom (who would later debut with 2NE1) and “This Love,” a rap cover of the Maroon 5 hit. I got curious about these songs a couple years later after I learned that Big Bang’s leader G-Dragon produced and wrote the rap lines for their “This Love” cover.
I didn’t know until then that Korean idols could also get involved in the music-making process. Like most people, I was under the impression that K-Pop idols were performance robots controlled by the more talented producers behind the scenes. I was also just starting to develop my own taste in music then, and my preferences were heavily influenced by the critical modes that were dominant in music magazines like Rolling Stone and Pulp.
Rockism was huge at that time and, according to rockist ideals, rock music was superior because it focused more on authenticity and less on commercial success. Critics applied the same lens when studying popular Top 40-style music. Singer-songwriters were generally favored over singers who didn’t write. Avril Lavigne, for instance, was deemed more authentic because she wrote her own lyrics unlike other female pop stars. Groups like Backstreet Boys were considered shit because none of them played any instruments unlike pop-punk boy bands.
Similarly, Korean idols did not hold any water against the singer-songwriters of the West. The general consensus was that K-Pop performers were simply heavily trained machines who were only as good as their marketing team. Somehow Big Bang partially broke away from this mold, and I was impressed. I soon became a huge fan of Big Bang and, eventually, of 2NE1.
I, however, did not absolutely dismiss the cutesy tunes of Girls Generation and the catchy jingles of SHINee. There were K-Pop fans who tried so hard to set themselves apart from girls who enjoyed “Gee” and “Ring Ding Dong” — dude, even my pretentious ass couldn’t pretend that I didn’t like those songs.
I get the idea though. I mean I understand why some people would prefer the grungier aesthetic of YG artists and extend greater respect to musicians who wrote their own materials.
More and more Korean pop stars had since started writing their own lyrics and openly talked about their artistic processes. Top star Lee Hyori has been writing her own songs since the H-Logic era, and idol rappers like Zico of Block B and Suga of BTS also compose songs for their respective groups.
A lot has changed since then and, over the years, my interest in J-pop has completely dwindled, while my love for Korean music has further deepened. I now know enough about the landscape, and I no longer concede to the blanket generalization that Korean music is nothing but a plethora of factory-produced songs. K-Pop is more diverse than meets the eye, especially if you view it beyond the microscope of idol subculture.
Also, Epik High’s Tablo was right: “Any industry that makes tons of money has a corporate structure because [it wants] to make more money.” The corporatization of music production originated from the West anyway, and we could lob the same criticism against any pop music industry in any country.
There are of course interesting nuances specific to South Korea, including the role of the state in weaponizing pop culture as fuel for its economic development. Even more specific is South Korea’s notable shift from authoritarian developmentalism to market-oriented neoliberalism, which had great impact on how Korean pop music evolved into the global monster phenomenon that it is now.
But, anyway, I better stop myself now before I nerd out. I started writing this post as a free-writing exercise and boy was this a good distraction. Tomorrow is another work day though. Hay my gulay dios mio por favor. I guess I need to grab a book and distract myself even more.